Indicators, MDGs, SDGs, and GDP


Mariama Williams (L) and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (R) at Kulturhuset in Stockholm, 16 May 2013

On Thursday 16 May, I attended an excellent public seminar on the power of indicators and numbers in the context of sustainable development. Hosted by UNDP and the Dag Hammarsköld Foundation, in Stockholm, it featured two powerful women speakers: Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, former director of the UN’s Human Development Index and now a professor at the New School in New York; and Mariama Williams, a senior researcher at the South Centre. I tweeted this seminar three times, and used words like “brilliant” and “inspiring,” even though the presentation slides were terrible and neither speaker was a spectacular orator. But their analysis was incisive, compelling, their way of presenting was genuine and direct, and they forced one to rethink even old thoughts in new ways.

Fukuda-Parr, once a champion of the aggregated index, presented a devastating critique of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Well, “devastating” is overstating, and she did not really have a solution to offer regarding the problems identified — but the problems are serious. Goals and their respective indicators, chosen to help simplify communications messages and get people motivated to act, became frameworks for giving and evaluation, and indeed replaced the more complex and nuanced conceptual frameworks that had previously characterized the issues. The MDG’s “began to define development.” This is quite problematic: “gender equality,” for example, gets reduced to the number of girls in school — which turns an enormous, deep global dialogue and not uncontroversial development process into a nice, non-threatening little percentage figure. (These are my words, not hers.)

I tweeted this link to her and her colleagues’ papers, constituting a critical review of the MDG process and its numbers:

I have not read the papers yet, but I plan to, and assume/hope that I got the basic message from Fukuda-Parr herself. Having listened to so much cheer-leading regarding the MDGs, which I do personally think have been very useful, and watching the formation now of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with some concern and worry, Fukuda-Parr’s critical skepticism was like a breath of fresh air into the dialogue. Especially as it came from the former director of yet another mega-indicator, the Human Development Index!

Her talk was peppered with phrases like “narrowing down effect,” “silos”, “perverse incentives” (knock down the housing of poor people and increase your score on ghettos!). She related how previously solid goals and targets — such as halving the *number* of people going hungry — got turned into much *less* ambitious ones. Halving the *percentage* of people without enough food, when populations are growing, leaves *more* people without nutrition than the older goal would have. “Water for all” became, effectively, “water for some.”

Ah, but what to do? No real answers here from Fukuda-Parr, except some “do nots”, like “Don’t take the indicators literally.” She advocates more the messy, paradoxical dialogue, than the clear, goal-seeking mega-indicator. This appeals to the intellectual, but not to the manager.

Mariama Williams had a different take, focused on the next-to-impossible challenge that she summed up (verbally) this way: There is a big development gap + there is a huge debt overhang in the developing world + we have reached or exceeded the planetary ecosystem boundaries + there is a huge mitigation gap on climate change so the world will eventually be steaming + there are occasional disasters in poor areas that reverse years of progress.

“Governments are still struggling to catch up with the 2015, MDG agenda,” she noted. “And here comes the *post*-2015 agenda. And the train has already left the station.”

Williams presented the classic critique of the GDP, but in some detail, including emphasizing its origins as a tool of wartime, something that did its job well but is “past its sell-by date”. And she referenced a couple of milestone reports that summed up the status of the alternatives — including, I was pleased to hear, our own “Life Beyond Growth” report. (

Williams, like Fukuda-Parr, didn’t have answers, nor did she promise any. She had excellent answers to question though, from the audience, showing how the political dialogue around the MDGs and other topics had effectively deflected any serious grappling with structural inequalities in the world. Both women agreed that equality had sunk lower on the political dashboard because of the way these goals and measures are handled, instead of being raised up higher. And important stories had gotten buried: China, for example, has succeeded on so many development indicators by *not* following the Washington consensus, which few wish even to speak about, while Brazil used serious labor policies to both protect workers and create jobs in a vibrant economy, something that again falls far outside of the neo-liberal consensus, but is (unsurprisingly) overlooked.

What do I take away from all this critical talk? A good, healthy skepticism about the SDG process — which I nonetheless am pledged to supporting, especially with our volunteer-driven Pyramid 2030 campaign, which is still in the “gearing up” mode ( And gratitude for the people who speak out and ask tough questions, when so many others nod and smile and say how wonderful these things are. I’ll close with a quote from Fukuda-Parr:

“There are things that we treasure that we simply cannot measure.”

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